Anam Khan

A developmental economist and much-needed leader

On Saturday, October 8, 2005 Anam Khan was enrolled in her second year at University College of Islamabad, majoring in economics and management, and was active in her societies—history, drama, debate, and yearbook. Additionally, she’d worked at Ovextech information technologies where she dealt with business proposals and learned firsthand about business development. Just before 9:00 that morning, an earthquake hit Islamabad, registering 8.2 on the Richter scale at its epicenter sixty-two miles to the north where it obliterated whole towns and villages. With the mountainous roads also destroyed, rescue attempts were inadequate. Aftershocks were horrendous, and winter snows were setting in. 1.8 million people were displaced, flooding into Islamabad and elsewhere.

Students volunteered eagerly, and Anam helped at the Shauqat Khanam Memorial Hospital and then in the relief camps. She organized a clothing drive where her knowledge of both Pashto and Urdu proved vital. Male relief workers, especially from foreign NGOs, couldn’t violate the conservative purdah culture even to help those struggling to survive. Not only could Anam communicate in the languages of the refugees, she had also spent two summers immersed in women’s rights awareness and the psychology of her country with regard to women’s status. She knew more about communication than simply speaking the victims’ language. “Homeless children and their mothers looked to me for support,” she said. Their trust and gratitude made Anam see herself as a leader.

And yet, there were other barriers, intolerances that led to hostilities. She was teaching a five-year-old to read and write, marveling at his sponge-like absorption of what she was teaching. She realized that she could convince a child more easily than she could convince her elders about changes. The area most devastated by the quake was the much contested Kashmir region, partially governed by India. Anam’s father was a veteran of the Pakistani Army and had been a POW during the war of 1971 with India. Dinner conversation often focused on the issues between the two countries, though Anam was encouraged to speak her mind. So it came as a revelation that any efforts to reduce conflict has to target the younger generation by teaching civic skills and tolerance.

Anam’s family endured the catastrophic riots after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, but Anam says “Participation in the relief work after the earthquake changed me as nothing else has.” When an individual finds herself in a position where she has a moral responsibility to use her advantages to fix a glaring problem in her community or society, Anam believes that person must shoulder the burden of leadership. “I don’t see leadership as glamour and limelight,” she says, “it is the responsibility that comes with being answerable for lives beyond my own.”

The earthquake’s aftermath lasted for years, and then in 2007, a horrifying siege took place at the Lal-Masjid (Red Mosque) between the government and Muslim fundamentalists. A disastrous flood hit Sindh in Southern Pakistan, leaving 250,000 homeless, and there were frequent bombings. On campus, students were agitated, and morale was low. Though she’d come to the university not knowing anyone, Anam had been elected General Secretary of the University. She planned to lighten the heavy mood on campus by offering a movie night; however, extremists splashed buckets of paint on the projector and broke furniture in the common room. The principal wanted to call in the police, but Anam convinced her that this would damage the university’s reputation and incur financial loss. She simply announced that the event would be postponed and then courageously walked over to the group of radicals she knew were responsible. She didn’t accuse or threaten, but instead spoke to them about her hurt and disappointment and described the mood she had hoped to create. She watched jeers turn to downcast eyes. Amazingly, the group apologized and paid for the damages. The movie was shown two weeks later.

“I have a passion to make a positive difference,” Anam says. She takes summer classes at the University of London in Economics and management and received an award in Organizational Theory. She plans to become a developmental economist, maintaining direct contact with people. She hopes to inspire people to believe in change and trust that her future programs will provide a better way of life. “I am not exaggerating when I say that Pakistan needs me,” she says.